This review of “Sing 2” was first published on Nov. 15 after its screening at AFI 2021.
From a business perspective, a sequel to 2016’s “Sing” surely sounded like an obvious cash-stacking operation for its makers. That first part grossed over $634 million worldwide (a number both staggering and depressing). Pandemic notwithstanding, “Sing 2,” once again written and directed by Garth Jennings, could safely expect to do some numbers at the warped box office. Illumination has figured out the profitability part, though not so the artistic quality.
As a movie, this new installment feels closer to a lazily assembled playlist featuring all of the Top 40 songs that hit airwaves in the years since the original was released. Not that the predecessor was much better in execution, but this time around the nearly wall-to-wall parade of pop songs rings oppressive in its relentlessness desperation to please.
“You know this song right?” the movie seems to yell time and again as it uses a few seconds of each track before moving on to the next one. Chart-toppers by Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and The Weeknd make cameos alongside some famed classics and more “obscure” fare that might make some perk up in confusion, such as the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Heads Will Roll,” an indie anthem used here to remind us porcupine Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is a rocker.
Back when we initially encountered anxious koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) and his troupe of anthropomorphic animals, their mission was to save their local theater. To no one’s surprise, they accomplished it. With their small-town space up and running, they are now performing a stage version of “Alice in Wonderland” that aesthetically resembles Tim Burton’s live-action stinkers for Disney.
But Buster wants more. In his tiny eyes, the cast he’s nurtured deserves the spotlight of the big city, Red Shores (this realm’s Las Vegas, with all its fanfare and sensory overload). Notably, the backgrounds and production design — namely in the gleaming urban landscapes and meticulously configured interiors in luxurious hotels — outshines the generic character design of the numerous creatures on stage at any given moment.
Bent on making the dream of fame happen, the leader pretends to have a close friendship with reclusive star Clay Calloway (an underused Bono) to convince villainous tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) to finance a show for them. With resources in hand, they get working on “Out of this World,” their by-the-numbers sci-fi epic, which spins subplots for several of the characters. Of those, shy gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) being trapped in a teacher-student quarrel à la “Whiplash” carries the most dramatic intent.
Among its many off-key crimes, “Sing 2” doesn’t commit to any of its sentimentality. Whenever there are any instances that could potentially convince us there’s more to this disposable affair, the film undercuts them. Early on the gang starts performing U2’s stirring “Where the Streets Have No Name” in a dazzling array of imaginary constellations that lasts no more than a few seconds before the loaded plot decides its time to move on.
Once the third act of this overlong screen adaptation of some random DJ’s Spotify mix comes around, we sit through the multiple numbers that comprise their intergalactic musical, mounted despite Crystal’s vitriol against Buster. Some of these set pieces are salvageable, like the antagonist’s daughter’s power ballad with hundreds of tap-dancing lemurs as backup dancers or Johnny’s chest-beating confrontation with his bully.
Conceptually, making the facilitator or producer the lead as opposed to the talented vocalists sounds like a noteworthy idea. In practice, however, the outcome deflates that premise. Similarly, “Sing 2” touches on toxic power structures and nepotism but plays it overly safe. No one’s asking for a dissertation on the evils of the entertainment industry in a children-oriented fable meant for its audience to view on a tablet being held with sticky fingers, but one could appreciate some extra narrative engagement with the topics.
The “Sing” franchise fits into the current peculiar fad of family shows where contestants, famous or otherwise, sing under ridiculous costumes (“The Masked Singer”) or as digitally created avatars (“Alter Ego”). There’s perhaps a kindred appeal for some in seeing this pack of uninterestingly affable animals performing songs, performed by celebrities, they know by heart or have at least heard on the radio on their commute to work.
As insufferably frenzied as “Sing 2” is, one can concede that the most enjoyable humor comes from the elderly lizard Miss Crawly (curiously voiced by director Jennings) and her devotion to Buster’s antics. The rest of the comedic duties fall on Nick Kroll’s Gunter again, with the pig’s irreverent, accented quips sometimes getting lost in the shuffle of the action.
For those who value the medium of animation and are simultaneously fond of projects that employ music as a foundation for their storytelling, the latest grail is Mamoru Hosoda’s “Belle,” currently in the awards race with a release date set for January 2022. Conversely, to satisfy a hankering for background noise featuring a choppy sampler of recognizable tunes amounting to innocuous blandness, “Sing 2” gets top billing.
“Sing 2” opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 22.